States Begin 'Revolt' Against Encroachment by Uncle Sam

Some governors seek return of co-equal power with Washington

TO Gov. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, it was another sign of a balance of power out of whack.

Each of the three times that he testified before congressional committees this year, he was followed at the witness table by a string of special-interest representatives.

The ''sovereign'' states -- once considered equals with the federal government -- are now treated on Capitol Hill as just another special-interest lobby, he says. If Mr. Nelson and many of his fellow governors have their way, that balance of power will change.

''States shouldn't have to come in as one more lobbying interest,'' says Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican who is also a leading federalist. ''We should be equal partners.''

The push toward stronger federalism, meaning more autonomy for states compared to the national government, has broader support now than in decades.

Governors Leavitt and Nelson are leading a slow-burning but serious revolt against years of growing federal encroachment. What they seek is a legal wall of protection -- possibly including constitutional amendments -- that protect the autonomy of states from acts of Congress.

In January, Leavitt and Nelson expect a resolution to be introduced in all 50 states for sending bipartisan delegations to a Conference of the States next summer. The conference is intended to produce a proposal for formal endorsement by state legislatures, one that would be much stronger than a federal law limiting the costs that Congress can impose on states, the governors say, but short of a potentially dangerous constitutional convention.

One outcome might be a constitutional amendment that allowed a three-quarter majority of states to nullify an act of Congress -- unless it was a clear congressional prerogative such as foreign policy or federal spending. ''It would have to be a terrible law for that many states to act in concert,'' says Leavitt. But just the possibility or threat of being able to cancel a law would change the bargaining power between states and the Congress, he says.

THE conference has been endorsed by people from incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the Republican Governors Association to the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. The Democratic Governors Association has not formally considered it yet, but individual governors reportedly favor the idea.

Leavitt predicts the battle lines over balancing the federal budget during the next 10 years will be less between the GOP and Democrats than between states and the federal government.

What is driving states to federalism now is the ever growing tendency for Congress to pass legislation in response to problems, but to leave it to other levels of government to pay the bill.

This is known in government circles as the ''unfunded'' or ''underfunded mandate.'' Over the past year or two, it has emerged as the major grievance of state and local officials.

Federal solutions are ''typically inflexible, one-size-fits-all solutions,'' says Nelson. So that under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which imposes federal standards that local governments must carry out, Nebraska water supplies must be tested for chemicals sprayed on pineapples in Hawaii and not found on the mainland.

Leavitt and Nelson counted 42 unfunded federal mandates passed between 1970 and 1990, and another 42 just in the years since 1990. By the time Nelson became governor in 1990, he says, he felt like a ''state administrator,'' because he had so many federal edicts to carry out.

But governors have realized they must ask a larger question than whether a mandate is funded, says Nelson. ''Is this a proper role for the federal government?'' he asks.

Some will answer mostly yes. Environmentalists are among those most concerned that a clipping of federal ability to set standards will undermine protections to the environment. Labor is concerned about workplace safety if federal power does not stand behind safety regulations.

But conservatives sometimes like federal power too. The crime bill passed this summer was full of federal mandates and the federalizing of crimes that have been state concerns.

Leavitt and Nelson also acknowledge legitimate federal roles in areas such as civil rights -- not wanting to be tarred by association with the states' rights movement of several decades ago that was chiefly Southern and anti-integration.

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